Mary Boykin Chesnut a Confederate heroine 

By Ned Harrison

She was called the diarist, the grande dame, the confidante of the Civil War. She moved in the highest circles, and was personally acquainted with Varina Davis, wife of the president of the Confederacy.

Mary Boykin Chesnut was all that and more: She brought the war to life as did no other of the time. For her writings and her insight at the most critical time in the history of the United States, she is a heroine of the Confederacy.

She was born to Southern aristocracy: Her father was Stephen Decatur Miller, a lawyer and later governor of South Carolina and one of its congressmen. The family were wealthy plantation owners.

In 1840, at age 17, Mary married James Chesnut, who was named to the U.S. Senate in 1858. He was a strong believer in slavery and in secession and resigned his seat when South Carolina left the Union. Chesnut worked on the committee that wrote the permanent Confederate Constitution and in the Confederate Congress. He was a colonel in the Confederate Army, and was also an aide on the staff of President Jefferson Davis.

Mary was in the right place at the right time. She was in Montgomery, Ala. when the Confederacy was founded and during its early months; in Charleston when Fort Sumter was fired upon; and in Richmond when the Confederacy flourished — and then foundered.

With her connections and timing, Mary had access to all levels of Confederate government and social life. She kept a diary (she often referred to it as her "journal") of events as she saw them, and much of it has survived as one of the most perceptive accounts of life in the Confederacy.

She even has a comment on some artillery action before Fort Sumter was fired upon. On April 3, 1861, the Federal schooner Rhoda H. Shannon was shot at in Charleston harbor by Confederate batteries. Mary’s diary entry for April 4, 1861: "A ship was fired into yesterday and went back to sea. Is that the first shot? How can one settle down on anything? One’s heart is in one’s mouth all the time. Any moment, the

[Union] fleet may come in."

The reaction was typical for almost all Southerners (and Northerners) about the upcoming fighting. Will there be war? When will it come? How will it come? Nerves on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line were frayed.

Mary starts her diary in mid-February 1861, when decisions on leaving the Union were part of Southern life. By that time, seven states had already seceded: South Carolina on Dec. 20, 1860, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and finally, Texas on Feb. 1, 1861. Her entry dated Feb. 19, 1861, shows how far the process toward nationhood had advanced: She writes that a Confederate Constitution was being written. She then notes how important Mexican War veteran and later congressman, senator and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis already was to the Southern cause: "Everybody wanted Mr. Davis to be general in chief or president."

On March 1, 1861, she also has comments on the soon-to-be-inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln: She has heard from "all quarters that the vulgarity of Lincoln, his wife, and his son is beyond credence — a thing you must see before you can believe it."

On the same day, she went to "pay my respects to Mrs. Jefferson Davis. She met me with open arms."

But the war intervened; Gen. Ulysses Grant took Forts Henry and Donelson. Mary’s entry on Feb. 11, 1862: "Fort Henry’s [fall has] the Tennessee River open to them and we fear the Mississippi River, too. … New armies, new fleets swarming and threatening everywhere." Her entry for Feb. 16: "Fort Donelson a drawn battle. You know … that means we have lost it."

On April 2, 1862, some war humor: "A man enrolled himself ‘one leg short,’ hoping to be exempt. The next man put down his name with ‘both legs short.’ "

There is no entry specifically for the terrible April 6-7, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh, in which the Confederacy suffered an appalling nearly 10,000 casualties (1,728 killed). But on April 15, Mary writes, "There is grief … for Albert Sidney Johnston [who was killed]. We begin to see what we have lost. We were pushing them in the river when Gen. Johnston was wounded. [Gen. P.G.T.] Beauregard was lying in his tent at the rear in a green sickness. … He was too slow to move and lost us all the advantage gained by our dead Hero. Without him, no heart to our western army. … What more is there to fall."

This is a fascinating paragraph. Mary was never considered a military expert, so the reader must assume that she is repeating what she has heard from the wartime leaders with whom she is in daily contact. Except for a brief period at Petersburg in April 1864, Beauregard never again had combat command in the Confederate Army.

April 27, 1862: "New Orleans gone — and with it the Confederacy. Are we not cut in two? The Mississippi ruins us if lost. The Confederacy done to death by the politicians. What wonder we are lost. Those wretched creatures [in] the Congress … could never rise to the greatness of the occasion. They seem to think they were in a neighborhood squabble about procedure. The soldiers have done their duty."

Mary writes frequently until about mid-July 1862, and then there is a pause until September 1863. Researchers agree that notebooks for that period are lost. Mary herself wrote, "I destroyed all my notes and journal … during a raid on Richmond in 1863." Some think it was during the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 1-4, 1863, when Union cavalry rode within a few miles of Richmond.

In September 1863, she wrote about how the war was affecting the home front: "These sad, unfortunate memories — let us run away from them."

She picks up her narrative in November 1863: "Anxiety pervades. Lee fighting Meade. Misery everywhere. Bragg falling back before Grant." Christmas Day 1863, a sentence of despair: "Others dropped in after dinner, without arms, without legs. … They laugh at wounds, yet can show many a scar."

In January 1865, depression: "Yesterday, I broke down — gave way to abject terror. The news of Sherman’s advance — and no news of my husband." By April 7, no hope: "Richmond has fallen — and I have no heart to write about it. Grant has broken through our lines. … There are too many for us."

On April 22, 1865: "Lincoln — old Abe Lincoln — killed — murdered. … Why? By whom? … I know this foul murder will bring down worse miseries on us."

After the war, Mary worked on her journal, revising and editing it. It is regarded as the best record of what went on in the Confederacy during its brief life.

This gallant lady died in 1886. She left no children, but she left a legacy for the South and the nation. She was a true heroine of the Confederacy.

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